Manitoba History: Kenneth S. Coates and William R. Morrison (editors), “My Dear Maggie”: Letters From a Western Manitoba Pioneer by William Wallace
by Wendy Owen
In 1881, three Scots males, a 59 year-old father and his two sons aged 22 and 15, emigrated to what is now southwestern Manitoba in order to take up a farm at the edge of settlement. The Wallace family left behind a sister in Scotland, and spearheaded by eldest son William wrote her regular letters until 1904, when she and her husband came to Manitoba, bringing the collection of letters with them. This book reprints the first five years of correspondence, covering the pioneering years.
Unlike many sets of immigrant letters, which are fairly prosaic in style and content, the Wallace letters are a rich source of information and thematic content, actually much more suggestive than their editors indicate in a workmanlike introduction. No biographical material on the family is available, although from the correspondence one can infer that the Wallaces were mid-Victorian middle-class Scots, probably former residents of Glasgow, well-educated with some cultural pretensions. “Papa” claimed a lifetime of farming experience, but even if that were true , agriculture in Scotland and agriculture in Manitoba were different. William Wallace demonstrates clear literary ability, and he has both the vocabulary and the metaphorical background to express himself most eloquently. He often seems to be writing for publication. In any event, a host of themes can be extracted from this correspondence, and a brief review can only begin to touch the surface of its first five years.
In their introduction the editors argue that the Wallaces settled in a British-Canadian district “almost totally homogenous in ethnicity and language.” (p. ix) The settlers, they insist, “all spoke the same language, had the same racial and cultural background, and went to the same three churches.” There was an equally narrow range to their “economic position.” Perhaps. A careful reading of these letters suggests the possibility of a quite different interpretation, however. William Wallace never employs the term “British,” either in reference to the settlers he is describing or to the culture which they manifest. He is instead quite precise about the geographical and social origins of the main characters he introduces to his sister in the correspondence. Englishmen are so described, “cockneys” are clearly identified, Irishmen are given their religious attributes. A new settler named McDougal is introduced as “an old highlandman from Prince Edward Island” and neighbour Martin as “a former Cockney.” The use of the term “former” may be significant, since all of these folk may well have been merging into a new nationality in their new surroundings.
The editors, who have access to nearly another twenty years of correspondence, may be ultimately quite correct in their attribution of Britishness. But on the evidence presented here, ethnic distinctions were still being carefully maintained and cultivated in Shellmouth in the early years of settlement. William Wallace discusses some cultural traits as “Yankee,” describes others as central Canadian, and makes plain that his family still sees itself as Scots (rather than Britons) overseas. He writes home for Scottish music, consciously employs Scottishisms in his text, and supports the Presbyterianism of the national church of Scotland whenever possible. That other Scots in the district shared his ethnicity is made clear by a subsequent dispute Willie had with ladies of the Presbyterian Church over singing in the Anglican Church choir. The range of nationality may have been fairly narrow, but there was not yet a homogeneity.
These letters remind us again that the frontier was not as simple and uncultured as the familiar stereotype would imply. Life in Shellmouth was not simply a constant round of drudgery under primitive conditions. The material conditions of daily life were usually primitive enough, but the settlers of Shellmouth had considerable cultural pretensions of one kind or another, and these pages are replete with descriptions of public and private culture-making of various kinds. What has to be said about culture-making on the frontier was that it was participatory rather than spectator-oriented. Music-making was extremely widespread and popular within the community. The Wallaces themselves all brought musical instruments with them, practised constantly to improve their skills, and wrote home regularly for new music to play. They found other families to sing and play music with, and Willie eventually bought an organ for 16 pounds from a neighbour. The community was capable of regular assembly for public performancewhat Willie called “grand demonstrations.” Amateur theatre arrived in Shellmouth almost from the beginning of settlement, and holidays like Dominion Day provided the occasion for public gatherings with sports, concerts, dances, and entertainments. Willie frequently “recited” and performed at these gatherings.
This correspondence also reminds us that the agrarian frontier was often another highly masculine realm, much like the fishing boat, the logging camp, and the mining community. Canadians involved with the resource economy in the nineteenth century spent much of their time living without female company. Not that the settlers did not miss it. As Willie wrote his sister in 1885, “What with cattle, pigs, poultry, and 65 acres of crop, we want a housekeeper very much now.” (p. 213) He continued in the same letter, “The work we want you for is to cook our meals, keep the house and dairy clean, and stitch our garments.” (p. 214) The correspondence never misses the opportunity to remark on the shortage of females in the community.
Although Willie exulted in 1884 that “We are the only ones of all our neighbours who have made any money from our farming operations,” the correspondence makes clear that the Wallaces could not have survived “without a single debt in Manitoba” except for a constant if irregular flow of cash remittances from Maggie in the old country. (p. 169) Willie constantly enjoined his sister to “be careful and keep a reserve against a day of necessity,” while protesting that the Manitoba branch of the family did not wish to be burdensome. Nevertheless, requests for cash were constant, and Maggie somehow supplied the money out of her teaching salary. Occasional remittances of ten or twenty pounds do not seem like much, but they must have taxed her limited financial resources considerably, and undoubtedly they made an enormous difference to her father and brothers, locked into a subsistence barter economy with no railway to provide a market income. How Maggie felt about the substantial expenditure on the organ is not revealed, since we do not have her side of the letter exchange.
There are many other themes that might be discussed from this rich correspondence, and still more might emerge had we access to the remaining run of letters from William Wallace. The collection is, however, a wonderful one, which deserves to be widely read by more than just those interested in pioneer days on the western Manitoba frontier. Regrettably, there is no index.
Page revised: 11 April 2010